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What is culture?

Culture, in anthropology, the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in social groups learn, create, and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. It also distinguishes humans from other animals. A people’s culture includes their beliefs, rules of behavior, language, rituals, art, technology, styles of dress, ways of producing and cooking food, religion, and political and economic systems.

Culture is the most important concept in anthropology (the study of all aspects of human life, past and present). Anthropologists commonly use the term culture to refer to a society or group in which many or all people live and think in the same ways. Likewise, any group of people who share a common culture—and in particular, common rules of behavior and a basic form of social organization—constitutes a society. Thus, the terms culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. However, while many animals live in societies, such as herds of elk or packs of wild dogs, only humans have culture.

Culture developed together with the evolution of the human species, Homo sapiens, and is closely related to human biology. The ability of people to have culture comes in large part from their physical features: having big, complex brains; an upright posture; free hands that can grasp and manipulate small objects; and a vocal tract that can produce and articulate a wide range of sounds. These distinctively human physical features began to develop in African ancestors of humans more than four million years ago. The earliest physical evidence of culture is crude stone tools produced in East Africa over two million years ago.

The characteristics of culture

Culture has several distinguishing characteristics. (1) It is based on symbols—abstract ways of referring to and understanding ideas, objects, feelings, or behaviors—and the ability to communicate with symbols using language. (2) Culture is shared. People in the same society share common behaviors and ways of thinking through culture. (3) Culture is learned. While people biologically inherit many physical traits and behavioral instincts, culture is socially inherited. A person must learn culture from other people in a society. (4) Culture is adaptive. People use culture to flexibly and quickly adjust to changes in the world around them.

A. Culture Is Symbolic

People have culture primarily because they can communicate with and understand symbols. Symbols allow people to develop complex thoughts and to exchange those thoughts with others. Language and other forms of symbolic communication, such as art, enable people to create, explain, and record new ideas and information.

A symbol has either an indirect connection or no connection at all with the object, idea, feeling, or behavior to which it refers. For instance, most people in the United States find some meaning in the combination of the colors red, white, and blue. But those colors themselves have nothing to do with, for instance, the land that people call the United States, the concept of patriotism, or the U.S. national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

To convey new ideas, people constantly invent new symbols, such as for mathematical formulas. In addition, people may use one symbol, such as a single word, to represent many different ideas, feelings, or values. Thus, symbols provide a flexible way for people to communicate even very complex thoughts with each other. For example, only through symbols can architects, engineers, and construction workers communicate the information necessary to construct a skyscraper or bridge.

People have the capacity at birth to construct, understand, and communicate through symbols, primarily by using language. Research has shown, for example, that infants have a basic structure of language—a sort of universal grammar—built into their minds. Infants are thus predisposed to learn the languages spoken by the people around them.

Language provides a means to store, process, and communicate amounts of information that vastly exceed the capabilities of nonhuman animals. For instance, chimpanzees, the closest genetic relatives of humans, use a few dozen calls and a variety of gestures to communicate in the wild. People have taught some chimps to communicate using American Sign Language and picture-based languages, and some have developed vocabularies of a few hundred words. But an unabridged English dictionary might contain more than half-a-million vocabulary entries. Chimpanzees have also not clearly demonstrated the ability to use grammar, which is crucial for communicating complex thoughts.

In addition, the human vocal tract, unlike that of chimpanzees and other animals, can create and articulate a wide enough variety of sounds to create millions of distinct words. In fact, each human language uses only a fraction of the sounds humans can make. The human brain also contains areas dedicated to the production and interpretation of speech, which other animals lack. Thus, humans are predisposed in many ways to use symbolic communication.

B. Culture Is Learned

People are not born with culture; they have to learn it. For instance, people must learn to speak and understand a language and to abide by the rules of a society. In many societies, all people must learn to produce and prepare food and to construct shelters. In other societies, people must learn a skill to earn money, which they then use to provide for themselves. In all human societies, children learn culture from adults. Anthropologists call this process enculturation, or cultural transmission.

Enculturation is a long process. Just learning the intricacies of a human language, a major part of enculturation, takes many years. Families commonly protect and enculturate children in the households of their birth for 15 years or more. Only at this point can children leave and establish their own households. People also continue to learn throughout their lifetimes. Thus, most societies respect their elders, who have learned for an entire lifetime.

Humans are not alone in their ability to learn behaviors, only in the amount and complexity of what they can learn. For example, members of a group of chimpanzees may learn to use a unique source of food or to fashion some simple tools, behaviors that might distinguish them from other chimpanzee groups. But these unique ways of life are minor in comparison to the rich cultures that distinguish different human societies. Lacking speech, chimps are very limited in what they can learn, communicate to others, and pass on from generation to generation.

C. Culture Is Shared

People living together in a society share culture. For example, almost all people living in the United States share the English language, dress in similar styles, eat many of the same foods, and celebrate many of the same holidays.

All the people of a society collectively create and maintain culture. Societies preserve culture for much longer than the life of any one person. They preserve it in the form of knowledge, such as scientific discoveries; objects, such as works of art; and traditions, such as the observance of holidays.

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